The U.S. attack on Iraqi has brought the collapse of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime, which is cause for celebration. For the first time in at least 35 years, the conditions could exist for Iraqis to chart their own destiny.
Now the United States has a crucial part to play in making Iraqi self-determination a reality: It must get out.
President Bush has told the Iraqi people: "We will help you build a peaceful and representative government that protects the rights of all citizens. And then our military forces will leave."
Bush has the sequence wrong; a truly representative government in Iraq is possible only if U.S. military forces leave first. The reason is simple: Liberating the Iraqi people was part of the Bush PR campaign to justify a war, but it was not the motive force behind U.S. policy. Neither were stated concerns about weapons of mass destruction or alleged terrorist ties.
Bush's fundamental goal in Middle East policy is no different from other administrations since World War II: To strengthen U.S. control over the flow of the region's oil resources and the resulting profits. In a world that runs on oil, the nation that controls the flow of oil has considerable strategic power, not only over the terms of its own consumption but over other nations. U.S. policymakers want leverage over the economies of our biggest competitors -- Western Europe, Japan and China -- which are more dependent on Middle Eastern oil.
From this logic has flowed U.S. support for reactionary regimes (Saudi Arabia), dictatorships (Iran under the Shah, Iraq in the 1980s) and regional military surrogates (Israel) -- always aimed at maintaining control. A "democratic" government in Iraq will be allowed if, and only if, such a government lines up with U.S. interests. The United States will allow the trappings of a democratic process as long as the process produces the right result.
This approach to democracy has been a consistent feature of U.S. foreign policy. While many acknowledge that in the past the United States has supported dictators and derailed real democracy abroad, the conventional wisdom is that things have changed since the end of the Cold War. Two recent examples suggest that though tactics may change, the goal remains the same.
In Afghanistan, U.S. support for "democracy" included strong-arm tactics at the loya jirga to eliminate a role for former king Zahir Shah and force his withdrawal as a candidate. After the fall of the Taliban, there was considerable support for his return to the country to play a unifying role, but Bush officials preferred their handpicked candidate, Hamid Karzai.
In Venezuela, U.S. officials were quick to proclaim support for last year's abortive coup attempt that temporarily displaced the elected president, Hugo Chavez. Even more embarrassing was the revelation that U.S. officials had met with Venezuelan military officers and opposition activists, including the nominal leader of the coup. Because Chavez defied the United States, the democratic process by which he had been elected was irrelevant.
What will democracy mean in Iraq? When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked Sunday whether the United States would accept in Iraqi elections a victory by candidates opposed to U.S. policy, he waffled. The lack of a history of political freedom in Iraq meant that sometimes "people end up not understanding what really are the facts," he said. How long does it take to reverse that? "It takes some time."
Will Iraqis be allowed to choose their own government only when their understanding of the facts matches Rumsfeld's? Will U.S. occupation continue until Rumsfeld is satisfied with the pace and direction of Iraqi learning?
An ongoing U.S. occupation will not be embraced by most Iraqis, with the exception of figures such as Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress exile group -- a "reliable" leader (defined as willingness to accept U.S. orders) preferred by many in this administration.
Gen. Tommy Franks has said U.S. forces will stay in Iraq "until there is a free government." Like his commander in chief, Franks misses the point: Real freedom stand a fighting chance only if the U.S. military withdraws and a U.N. peacekeeping force takes over the work of stabilizing the country. American military power can remove a dictator but -- given U.S. actions in Iraq and the Middle East -- it cannot create meaningful democracy.
Robert Jensen is an associate professor of journalism and author of "Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream."